"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge." — Albert Einstein
For 15 years one of the greatest men I personally know has taught AP English right here in Metro Detroit, encouraging exploration of the greatest literary works, and inviting open and vigorous debate about the themes and messages within them.
As the Class of 2009 prepares to graduate from Athens High School in Troy, Mich., Bill Johnson is also preparing to retire for teaching there, something he has done since 1981 with an infectious passion that has made him a living legend among those who have occupied a desk in his classroom.
"A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron." — Horace Mann
They say a teacher’s lessons stretch on for eternity, but if you don’t put much stock in trite quotes, consider the far more tangible evidence.
Upon the announcement that he was retiring, Johnson’s former students all but demanded an open house so that they might have the opportunity to come see him and wish him well. His family has complied with those wishes and so far nearly 200 students have RSVP’d through a special group set up on Facebook.
Looking around Facebook you’ll also find a group called “Mr. Bill Johnson Changed My Life!!!” With nearly 400 members, former students have posted favorite memories about Johnson’s class. They share heartfelt stories of how he impacted their lives as students and how his philosophies continue to influence them today. Perhaps the ultimate compliment is the postings from students who have gone on to be teachers themselves as a result of the impression Johnson made upon them.
"A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form." — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Beyond delving into the themes of Hamlet or discussing whether or not Jim Casey was a Christ figure in “The Grapes of Wrath,” Johnson inspires his students with lessons about life. When he is not facilitating a safe and mutually respectful atmosphere where creative expression mixed with laughter are the norm, he emphasizes the importance of knowing oneself, defining who you are, and understanding the importance of friends and family.
Filled with these long-lasting lessons rooted both in academia and life, before the seniors embark on life after Athens there is a unique tradition they participate in – leaving their handprints.
The walls and ceiling or Johnson’s classroom are covered with hundreds of the painted handprints of his former students. Each is adorned with anecdotes or quotes from class, a mention of their future plans, or even a message, perhaps for future students or perhaps for themselves, about something important they have learned under Johnson’s tutelage.
The classroom has not had a fresh coat of paint since 1974 and Johnson has rigorously defended it from such an upgrade in an effort to preserve the handprints, calling it “a handbook on how to live.” Now, as he is set to retire the classroom is scheduled to be repainted this summer.
When this was announced, once again Johnson’s former students took to the Internet, starting yet another group on Facebook, “Write a Letter to Save Our HANDS.” With close to 400 members, here too those who have taken AP English with Johnson share personal memories and upload photos of their handprints.
While Athens High School plans to move forward with repainting the room, they have welcomed graduates back to take photos before the work happens this summer.
"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." — Benjamin Franklin
Here’s the kicker on all this: I have never set foot in Johnson’s classroom. In fact, I didn’t even attend Athens High School. I think the first time I set foot in Troy, Mich. I was in my early 20’s. So why do I feel so passionately about Bill Johnson? And why do I truly regard him as one of the best teachers I have ever known? Simply put, Bill Johnson is not Bill Johnson to me. I know Bill Johnson better as “Dad.”
I have known Johnson for 12 years and have called him Dad for nine, having married his second daughter, Mary Beth, in 2000.
I remember first becoming acquainted with the tremendous respect Dad’s students had for him while Mary Beth and I were dating. And I must admit, it was extremely bizarre and something we laugh about it to this day.
Mary Beth and I would be at parties at Michigan State University and have people launch themselves across the room to talk to her, having recognized her from the photos on Dad’s desk in the classroom.
With gigantic smiles splashed across their faces, the would gush, “You’re Bill Johnson’s daughter, aren’t you? Oh, my God, I love your dad! He’s the greatest teacher ever!”
Then they would run around the party collecting other Athens alumni who would similarly gush with their admiration for her dad. I have to admit, at times it felt as if I was dating a celebrity, like being the regular Joe husband of a famous movie star while walking the red carpet.
It was silly and strange then, but then as I got to know the man, it made perfect sense. I don’t need this to turn into a Very Special Episode of “Saved by the Bell” or anything, but I didn’t have a great relationship with my father by any means. I love my father, but it is my father-in-law who has truly taught me what a father-son relationship should be. And since my father passed away, the value I have in my relationship with Dad is all that more important to me.
I have been welcomed into his family almost from the start, and his support of me and my family has been unwavering and more generous than one could hope to describe. He has directly taught me many things, whether it be rewiring an outlet, building a loft in my garage or tips for greening up the garden. But he has also imparted upon me lessons about how to be a father and a man that I cannot place value upon. He has shown me how to make others feel loved, offer support, pick your battles. I have learned from him how to be a constant light and a gentle but resolute guiding hand in the lives of my children.
(And I cannot thank you enough for that, Dad.)
As a teacher, Bill Johnson has undoubtedly touched the lives of hundreds of people, many of whom have gone on to be educators and who will endeavor to touch the lives of their students. For that he deserves every honor and commendation the world can offer.
But vastly more import to me is that he has touched my life as both a father and a teacher. And what he has given to me will now touch the lives of my children. That, to me, is unequivocally the best gift he has ever given.
Thanks, Dad. Congratulations on your retirement. Congratulations on being the DIFF directly in lives of hundreds, and indirectly in thousands more.
Mike Dunklee is a blogger and frequent contributor to the DIFF. You can read his witty and off the pole humorous writings on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on his aptly name blog Off the Pole. Thanks Mike. As always, keep 'em coming!